Advent & Liturgical Colors

I love Advent and Christmas!  It’s the one time of the year when Christians remember the importance of liturgy, symbolism, ceremonies, feasting, sharing with the poor, and aesthetics in the home.  I suppose dour Puritans just sit through the season, frowning at all the joviality, but for the rest of us, it’s a reminder of what really matters.  Deep down, we know that high and important holidays call for a high liturgy.  I dare say even the most contemporary, seeker-sensitive church does something different in their worship service to mark this time of year.  And even though we loath the self-centered commercialism of it all, deep down we know that birth of a King should be honored with ceremonies, feasting, and decorations, and gift-giving.  We know this at weddings, we know this at Christmas and Easter, but we forget it for the rest of the year. 

As Douglas Wilson says about much of American worship these days: “The problem with contemporary worship music is not the kind of music it is, but rather the kind of occasion everyone seems to think the service is,” (Mother Kirk, pg. 130).  We realize that Christmas and Easter are really holy-days, and so we treat them differently.  But, the rest of the year, Sunday is just a time when we come to church to be entertained, to socialize, to hear an inspiring sermon, and get our spiritual “fix” for the week.

Now, to the main point.  Caleb Roberts (check out the promising new blog he contributes to) asks: “I am fortunate enough to attend a PCA church that embraces the use of the colors but doesn’t seem to draw them in and establish them in the life and heartbeat, if you will, of the church. I am still learning, but is there not some significance to the assignment of various colors to the different periods of the Church Year? If so, what was the historical way in which the colors were woven into the fabric of the liturgy?”

For starters, The Voice  has a good summary of how liturgical colors are used (both in the past, and currently).  And this is a good place to make my main point–there is no fixed pattern for liturgical color use.  There are general patterns, which have become standardized over time (just as there is no one liturgy that Christians have always followed, but there are liturgical patterns that have become standardized over time).  We should be wary of adopting any color scheme, thinking that we are somehow returning to the practice of the ancient and universal church.  It just ain’t so.  This is, however, a useful area to explore, because it forces us to consider some deeper questions.

For example, most churches who follow a pattern of liturgical colors probably use the Western pattern.  But, the Eastern churches have a plethora of their own traditions (as this website demonstrates.)  I’m not an expert, but it seems like the Eastern patterns are generally similar to the Western patterns.  However, just as we should be willing to adopt the best elements of the Eastern liturgies, so we should at least consult the Eastern liturgical tradition before settling on any pattern scheme.

This also raises the question of whether we should even celebrate church holy-days in the traditional ways.  Many Western liturgical practices are really medieval innovations.  This is why I’m not an Anglican.  Anglicanism isn’t ancient enough!  I love and appreciate aspects of Anglicanism, but traditional Anglicanism is just too medieval (and non-traditional Anglicanism has a boat-load of its own problems). We need to be Biblical and patristic, in my humble opinion.  The Anglicans have useful things to teach us, but let’s also listen to the Orthodox, the Lutherans, and even (gulp!) modern liturgical scholars! 

So, is Advent a joyful season?  Should we fast more?  Or is it a joyful season?  Should we feast more?  The medieval church (in both the West and the East) tended to focus on the penitential aspect of the church year.  Thus, in both the West and the East (more so in the East, I think), there are extended periods of fasting in preparation for Holy Days.  I’m not downplaying the importance of fasting, but it is a question of emphasis.  What we are emphasizing in our celebration of the church year will determine how we use liturgical colors.  So, I would encourage Reformed folks who are interested in liturgical worship to dig into the history and theology of the Church Year.  Scripture should be our guide, but we have a lot of catching up to do as we seek to understand the mind of the historic church.

As we consider liturgical colors, I think we really need to do some serious work to lay out what Scripture says about colors, symbolism, and aesthetics.  I’m sure the Biblical Horizons guys have done work on this, but I haven’t got to it yet. 

Secondly, let me provide a couple quotes to illustrate some of the history behind the current liturgical color scheme.

First, Max Thurian provides an excellent summary of what each color should mean, and how it highlights the truths of each liturgical season.  My only problem is that he doesn’t really provide any foot-notes for his assertions.  But, I respect his opinion as a scholar, and he should definitely be part of the discussion. 

Regarding the evolution of the present scheme, he writes: “The liturgical colours began to be fixed according to a symbolical rule in the ninth century, but it was not until the end of the twelfth century that a canon of colours was established at Rome.  Different uses in different centres continued for many centuries.  Even to-day at Milan, in the Ambrosian rite, there is a rule of colours that differs from that generall accepted throughout the West” (The Eucharistic Memorial, vol. 1, pg. 66).

Secondly, Frank Senn (in his massive book, which I haven’t finished yet!) observes: “During the Gothic revival [in the 1800s] there was also a desire to provide altar hangings and antependia on reading desks and pulpits in the same liturgical color as vestments of the clergy.  Victorian commercial interests were mobilized to provide matching sets of stoles, maniples, chasibules, tunics, dalmatics, and copes as well as altar paraments and antepedia all in the ‘correct’ liturgical colors for Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholic parishes.  This commercial interest helped a great deal in standardizing liturgical colors during the nineteenth century.  Previously a great deal of variability could be detected in liturgical colors. [Senn then gives a handy chart of the different colors, and variations, that have been used for different liturgical seasons.]” (Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical, 607).

The liturgical terms Senn rattles off in the previous paragraph prove my point.  I don’t really know what half of them refer to!  I doubt if the average Reformed pastor has any idea either.  So, in conclusion, I encourage us all to do more study and research before adopting a liturgical color scheme.  If a church does adopt one, be open to the possibility of change, as God gives us more light!

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